Ginsberg’s Visionary Illuminations under Cézanne

Today we celebrate the 175th anniversary of Paul Cézanne’s birthday. The famous Post-Impressionist was born on the 19th of January 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, France. His life-long adventure with painting resulted in a breakthrough theory on the modes of perception of reality. His phenomenological approach towards nature, and its impact on the creative process, has inspired many artists, art theorists, but also writers and poets. Probably, one of the most interesting and thought-provoking cases of inspiration drawn from Cézanne is that of Allen Ginsberg.

41A7M2XT4PLDuring his Columbia University days, sometime around 1948, Ginsberg claimed to have experienced “several visionary illuminations under the spiritual guidance of what he perceived as the poet William Blake’s raised-from-the-dead, spectre voice.” (Paul Portugés, Allen Ginsberg’s Paul Cézanne and the Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus; [in:] Lewis Hyde, On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg). His “visionary illuminations” were most likely caused by the use of psychedelic drugs, and soon they attracted the attention of Ginsberg’s modern art course professor, Meyer Shapiro. Shapiro encouraged the young poet to make use of his already expanded level of consciousness to study Cézanne. Equipped with a “lot of marijuana”, Ginsberg visited the Museum of Modern Art, where he studied, or rather stared for hours at Cézanne’s paintings. What he discovered, and what consequently pushed him towards further research on Cézanne’s theory and technique, came as a great revelation to him. “This “cosmic sensation” he felt while peering into Cézanne’s landscapes was a “strange shuddering impression” and a “sudden shift, a flashing” in his mind that created a momentary “gap” in consciousness caused by the “space gap” in Cézanne’s paintings: “Partly it’s when the canvas opens up into three dimensions and looks like wooden objects, . . . in three dimensions rather than flat. Partly it’s the enormous spaces which open up in Cézanne’s landscapes.” (Portugés).

Ginsberg became obsessed with Cézanne, and, both in his paintings, as well as photographs of his work-space, he found elements which made him believe that Cézanne was a “big secret mystic”. For example, in a photograph of Cézanne’s atelier, Ginsberg noticed objects that according to him were the proof of Cézanne’s dabbling in alchemy: a human skull, a black hat, and the painter’s cloak. Similar impressions came after thorough 517DFKW99DLinvestigation of Cézanne’s The Black Clock; and they corresponded with Ginsberg’s interest in Zen and Gnosticism. “I began to see that Cézanne had literary symbolism in him, on and off. I was preoccupied with Plotinian terminology, of time and eternity, and I saw it in Cézanne’s paintings, an early painting of a clock on a shelf, which I associated with time and eternity, and I began to think he was a big secret mystic.” (Portugés). After studying Cézanne’s other paintings, such as The Landscape at La Rouche Fuyon or The Bay from L’Estaque, Ginsberg wrote a poem entitled Cézanne’s Ports, in which he mostly focused on “what “doesn’t occur on the canvas.” He proposes that Cézanne is enticing the reader into a “Heaven and Eternity” that isn’t represented on canvas but skilfully suggested by the artist’s hermetic method.” (Portugés).

Ginsberg was convinced that Cézanne’s paintings, despite their two-dimensional surface, were in fact revealing a three-dimensional world: “[Cézanne contained] in his skull these supernatural phenomena, and observations… that is a flash of the physical, miracle dimensions of existence, trying to reduce that to canvas in two dimensions, and then trying to do it in such a way as it would look if the observer looked at it long enough it would look like as much three dimensions as the actual world of optical phenomena when one looks through one’s eyes. Actually he’s reconstituted the whole fucking universe in his canvases…” (Portugés).

There was also one more quality of Cézanne’s method which inspired Ginsberg immensely. It was the “Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus” (“All-powerful Father, Eternal God”), the element of Cézanne’s theory of nature portrayal stated in his letter from the 15th of April 1904: “Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, that is a section of nature or, if you prefer, of the spectacle that the Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus spreads out before your eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men is more depth than surface whence the need of introducing into our light vibrations represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blue to give the impression of Air.” After reading another of 717411rnzaL._SL1200_Cézanne’s letters, in which the painter explains the process of “an optical sensation… produced in our visual organ”, Ginsberg believed that “Cézanne was capable of producing the sensation of the Eternal because he had trained himself accurately to reproduce the sensations of light travelling through his optic nerve after it entered the “organ of sight”. The key to Cézanne’s hermetic method was as almost “yogic perception.” The artist (or poet) learns an awareness of the actual physical operations of perception – the phenomenological ability of observing the self observing nature. Ginsberg’s ambition became to learn how to write during such heightened moments of attention.” (Portugés).

The impact of Cézanne’s theory on Ginsberg’s work was immense. The poet, through the medium of his poetry, tried to explore the Eternal element of the Universe – the “Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus”. By applying the method of juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory notions, he created “gaps” for the purpose of alteration of one’s consciousness – “something Ginsberg has called an “electro-chemical reaction”.” (Portugés). These “gaps” were reminiscent of Cézanne’s “spaces” installed in his two-dimensional paintings for the sake of experiencing the three-dimensional reality. Bearing in mind all of these influences, it comes as no surprise that the last part of Ginsberg’s Howl is an homage to Cézanne. The painter’s theory made Ginsberg aware of the fact that “art consists in paying attention to the actual movie of the mind”. (Portugés). We, on the other hand, have grown to understand that the “gap” created by the juxtaposition of the visual experience of Cézanne and the verbal experience of Ginsberg is filled with Eternity indeed. This Eternity is called the continuity of nature, or simply, life.                           

Who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time and

space through images juxtaposed, and trapped

the archangel of the soul between 2 visual

images and joined the elemental verbs and set

the noun and dash of consciousness together

jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens

Aeterna Deus


Allen Ginsberg, Howl (fragment)